After Years of Dismal Results, a Reorganization at McLaren

Fernando Alonso of Spain drove the McLaren MCL33 Renault during practice for the French Grand Prix in June, which he did not finish.

You have to go back to the final Formula One grand prix of 2012, in Brazil, for the last time McLaren took the checkered flag.

The decline that has followed has been long, painful and, at times, acrimonious.

For a team that has won eight constructors’ championships, 12 drivers’ titles and 182 grands prix, such a deterioration has been difficult to accept. On top of that, the team’s star driver, Fernando Alonso, announced this month that he would retire at the end of this season.

Almost six years after it won that race in Brazil, the question is: Will McLaren ever recapture those glory days, or is it just another bystander to the battle between Mercedes and Ferrari?

Zak Brown, who was appointed chief executive in April after serving as executive director following his arrival at McLaren in November 2016, is confident that it has turned a corner, now that he has put a new team into place.

“We didn’t get to where we are now overnight, and we’re not going to fix all our problems overnight,” Brown said in an interview. “I’d like to think we can fix things at a much quicker pace than it declined.

“That’s what we’re going to do, we’re head down, with total shareholder support, total commitment, with everyone very focused and working great together. It feels good now, but as I’ve told the team and our partners, it’s going to probably feel good before it looks good because there is a technical lag.

“We are years away, and it feels a bit painful to say that,” he said, “but I think it will take us a couple of years to get to what I call our fighting weight.”

Brown blames what he describes as “a lack of leadership and direction” within “a pretty complicated organization.”

For years, McLaren has been rife with political infighting among the shareholders, boardroom coups, threatened internal takeovers and the departures of three chief executives in three years: Martin Whitmarsh, Ron Dennis and Jost Capito.

Capito, previously the successful head of Volkswagen Motorsport, lasted just five months because of what McLaren said in February 2017 was a failure “to find common ground” regarding “what is, and will be needed, to make the team successful again.”

Brown discovered “wrong people in the wrong places, right people in the wrong places — just not a well-run racing team because I don’t think any of the leaders were around long enough to stick with it and provide some momentum.”

He has acted swiftly in making changes, in particular setting up a new hierarchy.

Of the triumvirate that ran the technical operations — Matt Morris, chief engineering officer; Tim Goss, chief technical officer (chassis); and Peter Prodromou, chief technical officer (aerodynamics) — only Prodromou remains. Morris resigned in late July, Goss in April. In addition, Éric Boullier, who set up the technical team, resigned as racing director in early July.

“You had too many chefs in the kitchen,” Brown said. “It wasn’t a competency issue, but there can only be one head chef.

“I think we tried to be a little too clever earlier this decade, and it didn’t work. I don’t think that was a people problem. I think that was a structural way of working and communication problem, so we’ve changed that. We’re going back to a structure that has been around in Formula One for a long time.”

Brown has appointed James Key of Toro Rosso as technical director. He will lead the technical team, but because of contractual obligations to Toro Rosso, Key may not join McLaren until April or May of next year, overseeing the design of the car for 2020.

Andrea Stella has also been promoted from head of race operations to performance director, and Gil de Ferran, who was a consultant for the team, has become sporting director.

“We needed fresh blood, someone with more of a racer mentality, and Gil gives us that,” Brown said. De Ferran, a former driver, was the 2000 and 2001 Champ Car champion and won the Indy 500 in 2003. He has also run his own IndyCar team and was sporting director in Formula One with Honda and BAR from 2005 to 2007.

“Gil knows how to win championships and big races. He’s there in a sporting context, to look around, to see if we are all working efficiently, getting maximum performance out of the people side of the sport,” Brown said. “With Andrea, he’s all about how we can get maximum performance out of the racecar and race team in a technical way.

“The two of them, over a race weekend, have to come together to achieve the best result, obtaining maximum performance technically and from the human side.”

Since joining McLaren in May, de Ferran has discovered that “there is a lot of talent and brain power in the team.” His job is to ensure that there is communication and clarity.

“The success I had behind the wheel, and any success I had as a businessman, came from really trying to understand where my weaknesses were,” de Ferran said. “I was not one to be afraid to look in the mirror and say: ‘I could have done better here. What do I need to do to improve?’

“The second thing I realized, very early on in my life, is that you don’t have success by yourself. Very few people are able to achieve many things in life by themselves. Most of them are part of a team.

“So knowing how to put a team together, working together and getting people to feel focused and motivated and really understand where they’re going and truly engage, is key.”

The team had switched to Honda power units in 2015, after working with Mercedes for 20 years, and performance suffered. Now powered by Renault, McLaren’s results have not improved much this season.

McLaren finished ninth in the constructors’ championship last season, the worst position since 1968. The team still boasted that it had one of the best chassis on the grid and said that with a new power-unit partner it would improve. But this season, compared with Red Bull, which also uses Renault units, the McLaren cars are noticeably slower.

It has resulted in criticism, including from Whitmarsh, the former chief executive. In June, he told The Daily Mail that McLaren needed “a big change in approach,” that there was “too much politics between the main figures” and that “a number of them have to go.” McLaren responded, saying Whitmarsh was “ill judged and ill informed.”

Such remarks, and those of others, serve only to inspire the team, Brown said.

“It’s difficult when you’re not performing,” he said. “It can be frustrating at times because some people don’t fully understand situations, and, because we’re McLaren, they also have very high expectations. We’ve tried to reset those.

“We’re also not going to make some of the mistakes we’ve made in the past, like making overenthusiastic comments about having the best chassis. We know those things can come back to bite you, but if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.

“One of the things I think is great about this team is the fire in its belly to win is awesome. The more critical people are, the more we want to get back to our winning ways. It’s hard, but it pushes us forward.”

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